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Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus began surging through churches across the country where services resumed. The virus infiltrated Sunday sermons, meetings of ministers, and Christian youth camps. It hit churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers. Across the country, pastors and their families tested positive, as have church ushers, front-door greeters, and hundreds of churchgoers. Has Covid-19 changed worship services forever?
While thousands of churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country have been meeting virtually or outside on lawns and in parking lots to protect their members from the virus, the right to hold services within houses of worship became a political battleground as the country crawled out of lockdown this spring. In May 2020, the president declared places of worship part of an “essential service” and threatened, though it was uncertain he had the power to do so, to override any governor’s orders keeping them closed. As the virus continues to storm the country, the drive to reopen churches appears to be losing momentum, especially with attendees. The virus has infiltrated Sunday services, church meetings, and youth camps. More than 800 cases have been linked to religious facilities during the pandemic.
Pastor Satterwhite of the Island City church contracted the virus, and his wife was hospitalized. However, the Oregon pastor still believes that scrutiny had fallen unfairly on churches, while businesses with outbreaks did not face the same backlash. The pastor appreciates Trump’s supportive remarks about churches being essential. In his own church, Mr. Satterwhite said, congregants were social distancing and mostly wearing masks. He had initially live-streamed services on Facebook, but some congregants begged to return to church and others did not have reliable internet access. When weighing his responsibility as a faith leader, he said:
I think that there is an effort on the part of some to use things like this to try to shut churches down. My personal belief is, I have faith in God, if God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid. And if God doesn’t want me to get Covid, I won’t.
Many Christians do not share the pastor’s sentiments. Some believe it is irresponsible for places of worship to even suggest that members return during the pandemic threat. Churches cannot afford to return to “normal.” This is not possible. Nor is it responsible. Returning to the way things used to be would defy the government’s orders as well as Jesus who warned against pouring new wine into old wineskins.
Churches are notoriously ineffective at getting people to follow new rules and guidelines. Reopening safely requires training a cadre of leaders who will champion a new culture of doing church. One critic explained her disdain for churches opening too soon as follows:
The glibness, ignorance, self-righteousness, and selfishness of people like Mr. Satterwhite (if God wants me to get COVID, etc.) is simply astounding. If we were talking about a disease that wasn’t contagious, for example, cancer, that would be one thing. But COVID-19 affects us all. Where is the Christian bedrock principle of love thy neighbor? Certainly not in some self-professed “Christians.” My own Methodist church in Houston, with its intelligent and compassionate leaders, has been closed for more than four months now and will remain closed for the foreseeable future, with only online services, and I am so grateful for it.
Has Covid-19 changed the format of church forever? Perhaps. It also silenced the country enough to notice the unjust state of the Black community in America. Now, churches are having to navigate the painful reality of leading while supporting members who are directly impacted by police brutality. Heretofore, pastors could turn a blind eye and remain silent and/or indifferent on pertinent issues surrounding race in the country.
Black America has cried out for over four hundred years about the abuse they have suffered in America. Yet, with all the attempts to scream for help, many—if not most—white Christians have been silent. What hurts the most is not the silence of America but the silence of white evangelical brothers and sisters. The pandemic has forced all people to see the disparity of the country and the need for the church to stand up and lead the way to wholeness.
Whether black or white, Fear of the virus has some Christians vowing to neve return to in-person worship services. Others admit that people want to go back to church. However, they maintain that people should not go back to the same church they left. Instead of returning to the same church, we should be relaunched as a new church. Churches lack an enforcement mechanism and are often too kind for their own good. A new culture marked by a willingness to put the safety of others ahead of personal preferences would better serve members.
The primary call for Christians is to serve others – especially the vulnerable, the weak, and the poor. Reopening should not be about what is best for the leadership, instead, it needs to be best for the common good and the greater community. This is not a time to focus primarily on what the church may be sacrificing by not gathering, but how it is serving and loving all its neighbors by not gathering too soon.
Has COVID-19 change worship services forever? Whatever pastors decide to do considering the pandemic surge, churches should seek to exceed the basic health guidelines. Churches are not the exception. By understanding all the ways that the virus is still spreading, churches can take appropriate steps to mitigate risk. This includes following all the best guidance around limiting the size of gatherings, cleaning practices, social distancing, and the wearing of masks.
Opinion by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
New York Times: Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are Confronting Coronavirus Cases.
The Florida Conference: Why Reopening a Church is Different
The Daily Article: Does silence equal complicity with racism?
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